I am a touchy person. I don’t mean that I am easily offended, just that I communicate through touch and gain strength from being in close proximity to other people. I feel set adrift when I am physically separated from the rest of humanity.
Regular readers will recognise a theme running through my writing on Cultivating Courage: get strong and keep a collection of kind companions close at hand.
Against that background, it will come as no surprise to hear me say that I am noticeably less courageous when touch is excluded from my life. For me, it’s like being homesick – a kind of longing for a place of closeness and familiarity.
Like every other Australian, I have been affected by the social distancing guidelines issued by the government and health authorities. In the past week, I have had speaking engagements, work meetings, social gatherings, healthcare appointments and family visits cancelled or postponed. Good friends have had to delay their weddings, school formals have been put off and friends have had to forfeit the money spent on a Scandinavian trip “that nothing was going to stop them from doing”. Every day, my daughters lug all their belongings to and from school, just in case they’re not allowed back. Courts have been placed under restrictions, causing pain for the lawyers who make their living from appearing before judges and juries, as well as people tied up in criminal proceedings or civil disputes. Family members who work in the airlines and retail are feeling the pain, with their hours cut and jobs under threat. It is all so terribly uncomfortable.
Discomfort is so much easier to bear if we know precisely what it will entail and when it will end.
Last month, in the time “BC” – before COVID-19, I spent a long weekend on Fraser Island. It was hot, sandy, lacking in air-conditioning and diabetes-friendly meal options, and required getting up earlier than I would have liked at the time. Some of the tracks were difficult (if steep, winding, sandy tracks eroded by use that you are required to navigate blind can be described as merely “difficult”). At one point, my two companions and I had to skid down a sand dune to get to Lake Wabby, one of the world’s most delicious waterholes, where we spent half an hour swimming in cool, clean water in the shade of trees that tinged the water orange and gave it a subtle taste of nature. Now, the thing about sliding down a sandy slope at the end of a journey is that, to get back to the place where you started, you need to get back up that sucker. Luckily, I had an experienced guide (thanks Buck) coaching me to empty my lungs fully on the out-breath so they would fill completely with the next breath in.
Given I am here telling you this story, I obviously made it back up the sand-blow and along the track and through the hot night to get back to the relative comfort of my home, where the only discomfort is not being able to air-kiss a new acquaintance or hug a friend or go to a physiotherapy appointment because of social distancing obligations.
The difficulties of that trip pale in comparison to the upheaval occasioned by the explosion of the Coronavirus shortly after my return home.
Unlike so many others in the world, I have not been touched by the sickness that the Coronavirus causes in those at risk. I fear that it will not be long before that is the case for very few of us. There is hope that if the spread of the virus is relatively contained in Australia, the research that looks so promising at present will have time to develop into an effective treatment that will be widely available in this connected world we now inhabit. No one yet knows how long that will take or what it will involve, so all we can do is trust that the measures implemented to contain the virus are the best way forward for now.
The restrictions would be so much easier to bear if we knew for sure how long the crisis will last and exactly what it will demand from each of us.
Perhaps, rather than getting into a collective panic and hyperventilating, we should all adopt Buck’s advice for making it up the sand-blow – concentrate on breathing slowly and deliberately, being kind and loving to everyone, regardless of whether social distancing obligations allow us to be close to them physically.
In this time of heightened fear around the world, I am reminded of a poem from Michael Leunig’s 1993 “Common Prayer Collection”:
There are only two feelings. Love and fear.
There are only two languages. Love and fear.
There are only two activities. Love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear.
Love and fear.
Let’s all acknowledge that our fear is motivated by love – love of our way of life, and our own fragile place within it, as well as our love for family, friends and community. Let’s all do our best not to lash out at each other like frightened animals, but to speak love in every interaction. Let’s find a new way of living every day that is based on love and concern, reaching out to each other as best we can, rather than pulling up the drawbridge because we are afraid.
While we act from a place of fear and scarcity, we will all be stranded on our own islands, longing to make it back to a place of closeness and familiarity. Instead, let’s all be deliberate about cultivating the courage we will need to make it through the crisis without giving in to the ugly fear-driven aspects of human nature.